Willow’s mind-touch was taut with concern, and tinged with fatigue. Otter didn’t know why she was worried about him. He had been climbing — Otter tried to sit up, but firm hands pressed against him, keeping him lying down.
“Just open your eyes, Otter,” Willow directed. “I want you to re-orient yourself before you sit up.”
Otter followed her directions, opening his eyes. He looked at Willow’s concerned face, then beyond her to see Beetle and his mother, looking worried. He was surpised he couldn’t see the elf he’d been climbing after, or the annoying Preserver she’d brought with her, so he asked, “Where’s Firecat? Where’s Chatterhop?”
Starskimmer responded before anyone else could answer, “She’ll be back. She was rather emotional about your fall. I sent her back to the Holt to get you a change of clothes — it gave her something to do that was more productive than apologizing over and over. I had her take Chatterhop with her and told her to leave it at the Holt.”
“She’s gone?” Otter asked, confused. He didn’t know why Firecat would feel badly about him taking a fall, then again, he’d only met her three moon-turns ago; he didn’t really know her that well yet. “But… it wasn’t her fault!” he protested.
He tried to sit up again, and this time Willow helped him. Then she asked, “So, what happened? Firecat shared that you’d fallen, and as I hurried, I gave her instructions on caring for you until I arrived. The bug wanted to wrap you right away, but she said you didn’t need wrapping, that the healer would be here before it was done. Once I got here, I was too busy healing your rump to ask questions.”
Starskimmer moved to sit next to him, and his sister stepped forward to massage her lovemate’s neck while they listened. “Well, earlier Firecat was talking about wanting to go for a climb. She said she planned to take Chatterhop with her in case something happened. I told her that I liked to climb, so I’d go with her, too. She asked if I could keep up, and I said, ‘Of course!’"
“Of course you did, son,” Starskimmer said. “I’m guessing you couldn’t?”
Otter looked at her questioningly. She wasn’t usually so sharp with him.
She barked, “What? Are you surprised that I’m angry? You could have died, Otter! It’s not the first time you’ve knowingly put yourself in danger — it’s just the first time you’ve been so seriously hurt. Of course I’m upset. Now tell us what happened so I can be relieved and forgive you.”
Otter noticed she had tears in her eyes, so he spoke quickly, “We ran to get here. I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t keep up on foot, so I summoned Splash and rode while Firecat ran. When we got here, I sent Splash back to the Holt, figuring she would return later if I howled for her. The bug set to collecting pebbles along the base. You’ve probably seen the way it hoards things. Anyway, Firecat stood there looking up the south side of the Speartip for a long while, and I knew she was planning what route she wanted to climb. I’ve done it myself a few hands of times or more.
“When she finally picked her route, she asked if I was ready, and I told her I’d follow her up. I bragged that I’d climbed here so many times, I could almost do it blindfolded. She looked at me with a strange expression then, but didn’t say anything, and started climbing. Only then did I realize I was going to have a hard time following her.
“She has such great reach!” Otter exclaimed in admiration. “So much further than I do. But I’d told her I could keep up, and I was determined to do it. The first few movements had easy ledges, so I could jump to holds and keep close to her, but then… it was like she could glide up the ridge. It got harder and harder, and on my last attempt to reach the next handhold… I must not have made it. I must have fallen.”
“You did,” Firecat said, out of breath.
Otter and the others looked up at her, surprised at the interruption and at her arrival. Her forehead was covered in sweat and her eyes were bloodshot. Awkwardly, she tossed the bundle of fresh clothes toward him, and he caught them. Firecat stood there a moment before plopping down to the ground, relieving them of the need to crane their necks.
Then she started apologizing, “I’m sorry, Otter, really. I should’ve taken our height differences into consideration when I challenged you to keep up.”
“Don’t apologize for my brother’s stupidity, Firecat,” Beetle said, interrupting. “He’s been climbing long enough to know what’s within reason and what’s just dumb.”
Otter nodded. “I had no business trying to climb like a mountain goat.”
Firecat almost looked relieved, but she continued, “I still should have been more thoughtful. Anyway, the last ledge you tried to jump to wasn’t within reach, and you started to slip. You couldn’t catch a handhold, and you fell. It was terrible to witness. I was sending for help as I climbed down. You were unconscious, and one of your legs was broken. I did what I could for you; I’m just grateful Willow was so close. She and Beetle arrived, and your mother was hot on their trail.”
“I’ve never been as worried as in that moment that Firecat sent you’d fallen,” Starskimmer said. “And Tenor’s never run so fast, either,” she said proudly, referring to her wolf-friend.
Otter smiled at his mother. He felt badly that he’d worried them, and he was grateful Willow had been able to come so quickly. Looking at Firecat, though, who was so new to the tribe and so foreign, he felt bad. Her distress was his fault, not her own. He didn’t know how to make her feel better. “I’m sorry I worried you all. Thank you, Willow,” he said quietly.
“She’ll need to eat something, Otter,” Beetle said, offering a suggestion of how he might repay her lovemate; not that Willow ever asked or expected anything in return for a healing.
“Meat or fish?” he asked Willow.
“Meat,” she answered decisively.
Otter started to stand. “I’ll get some as quickly as I can. I’ll need to…”
“You’ll do no such thing, son,” Starskimmer insisted. “You can get the healer some food after you’ve rested. To bed with you. Let your body finish the work that Willow started. You’ll see.”
As he stood, Otter noticed that he felt achy, and weak. “What?” he asked, confused.
Willow looked at him. “I could tell from Firecat’s send that you’d done something reckless. I healed you, and you’re almost good as new, but your mother asked me to leave the aches to teach you a lesson. You need rest to complete the process.”
He was irritated that his mother had suggested that, but he knew that if she would be caring for him, she would also be sacrificing other activities. He pushed aside the irritation and found he was also grateful. The tribe had been without a healer for so long, he had a feeling that if Willow hadn't developed her powers, he’d have possibly lost a limb, or worse, been wrapped indefinitely. He shuddered, then thanked her again. “I’ll catch…”
This time, Firecat interrupted him. “I’ll hunt some meat for you, Willow. It will give me something to do to make up for…”
Starskimmer interrupted her, “You’re making up for nothing. Otter knew better. If you want to hunt for Willow to thank her, so be it. I’ll join you. It’s my son she healed, and it’ll give us time to know one another better. Beetle, Willow, will you two make sure this foolhead gets to bed back at the Holt?”
Beetle nodded. “Rooter’s here. She’ll let him ride back. Then we can get him to bed sooner.”
Otter felt like a cub again, but he didn’t argue. He knew there would be no winning, not with the four elves before him. As he watched Firecat and his mother walk off in search of prey, he felt bad — he knew that his tall agemate blamed herself for his foolish act. He realized it was his own pride that had caused him to fall. He didn’t know how, but one day, he hoped he would make it up to her.